As an artist with a deep fascination with the human connection to the ocean, I was invited in 2017 to interpret the collections, archives, and storage of the Mystic Seaport Museum. My focus was on the high seas, a space outside of national jurisdiction. I envisioned the high seas as a space of possibility and wonder; a place few people traverse but many desire to know better. The rules that govern are different there; in fact, to the detriment of human rights and oceans’ ecologies, sometimes it’s clear that there seem to be no rules at all. The fact that the high seas technically belong to - and are stewarded by - all has long captured my imagination as an almost utopian ideal, just because of its massive scale. On smaller scales, social scientists like Nobel prize winner in economics, Elinor Ostrom, have discerned that commons located around the world have worked well when people trust each other and work together to care for a place through a more immediate governance system. The Open Ocean exhibition was designed to prompt a closer look at this often-overlooked space, presenting a compendium of objects that tell different stories when placed together.
Through my research, I found evidence of the extraction of living things, particularly fishing, and whaling, which reflected the abundance of life in the ocean at the time of the museum's collection. However, the over-extraction of life in the oceans has caused species to reach tipping points, leading to wealth disparity and ecosystem upset. The exhibition and book were designed to reflect a timeline of invention and change, exploring the human traumas that occurred on the high seas, from slavery and human trafficking to forced labor on factory ships.
The exhibition also stresses our planetary interconnectedness and the need for the conservation of important natural spaces like the high seas. The oceans don't exist in a vacuum, and what happens in one place affects every place on Earth. It's crucial that we work locally and globally to conserve these spaces, and that more people and groups are given the opportunity to share their perspectives and have an impact on the future of the high seas.
The name Mystic derives from the Pequot term missi-tuk, which means “a large river whose waters are driven into waves by tides or wind.” - Old Mystic History Center